The playing of the piece began in 2001, it is scheduled to be completed in 2640. No, that is not a mistyped number, John Cage’s composition As Slow As Possible is intended to be played over a period of six hundred and thirty nine years (and even that might be considered too short a time, if it is possible to play it even more slowly). The piece is being played by an automated organ in a church in Halberstadt in Germany and the recitation has so far lasted more than seventeen years. Compared with As Slow As Possible, Erik Satie’s Vexations is extremely brief. Vexations isa composition where there is a repetition of a piece of music eight hundred and forty times, but it only lasts nine hours and forty-one minutes: what is a composition lasting a matter of hours compared with one lasting more than six centuries?
But why? The first time I encountered Vexations it seemed absurd, who would listen to the same piece repeated so many times? As Slow As Possible does not offer the possibility of someone listening to it in its entirety – its performance lasts twenty-five generations. It is so slow that the pause at the beginning of the piece lasted seventeen months, the first note did not begin until 2003. John Cage, who died in 1992, was inspired by the idea that there had been an organ in the church in 1361 and that six hundred and thirty nine years would have passed by the time of the millennium, but does anyone expect that it will reach its projected end in 2640?
If the playing of As Slow As Possible continues for another century, or two centuries, isn’t it likely that civilisations much more advanced than our own will look quizzically at the concept of a piece of music that lasted so long? What purpose will it have served? Or, if suggesting everything should have a purpose is too utilitarian, what artistic value is there in a composition of which any person can only hear a tiny fraction?
Sometimes there seems a conscious desire to make the arts as inaccessible as possible, as if the prospect of popular appreciation might somehow diminish the artistic merit of a work, as if widespread appeal would be anathema to the artist. As Slow As Possible is a fascinating concept, but isn’t there a touch of hubris behind it? What does it say about the thoughts behind the work when it is written to last such a length of time? Doesn’t it seem absurd?